Wellfleet Debates Details Over Northern Extension of Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod's Route 6 is a place bicyclists and pedestrians would like to avoid. But does it always need to be that way?

A section of the proposed Wellfleet extension of the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Image courtesy of the Massachusetts DCR.
A section of the proposed Wellfleet extension of the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Image courtesy of the Massachusetts DCR.

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is moving forward with plans to extend the Cape Cod Rail Trail two miles northward into the town of Wellfleet, but the proposed trailhead on Route 6, the main highway through the outer Cape, is stirring up safety concerns about the busy highway that runs through Wellfleet’s town center.

The existing Cape Cod Rail Trail is a popular transportation facility and tourist attraction that extends over 27 miles from South Wellfleet to Yarmouth (a project that finished construction earlier this year extended the southern end of the trail 5 miles from its previous terminus in Dennis).

The state’s Wellfleet trail extension project proposes to add two miles to the northern end of the trail, to bring it to the outskirts of Wellfleet’s village center.

The majority of the project is uncontroversial, but a handful of Wellfleet residents are circulating a petition objecting to the state’s proposal to end the new trail at a large parking lot off of Route 6, the outer Cape’s busiest road.

A proposed state project would extend the Cape Cod Rail Trail about 2 miles northwards towards Wellfleet Village (white dashed line), but some locals argue that the project should terminate on the low-traffic Old King’s Highway instead of the busier Route 6.

“We do not have experienced cyclists (using the bike path), we have recreational tourists here. By putting them on Route 6, they’re endangering themselves and there may be more accidents among cars,” says Dale Donovan, a Wellfleet retiree, former Wellfleet select board member and the petition’s chief circulator.

For most of its length along Cape Cod, Route 6 is a four-lane, divided highway with cloverleaf interchanges.

When it reaches Wellfleet, though, Route 6 narrows to a more traditional 2-lane road, lined with homes and businesses, with a posted 45 mile-per-hour speed limit. Rear-end crashes are fairly common, especially near the two traffic lights that bookend the town center.

The DCR’s proposed parking lot for the Cape Cod Rail Trail extension project lies directly across the street from a ghost bike that memorializes Miles Tibbetts, a local 16-year-old who died of injuries inflicted by a motorist on Route 6 in 2013. Since then, two other people – both motorists – lost their lives in crashes at other locations on the same road, according to the state’s crash database.

MassDOT, which controls and maintains the state highway, is in the early stages of designing some “complete streets” improvements, including sidewalks and bike lanes, in a project scheduled to go under construction in 2023.

In an email message, MassDOT spokesperson Judith Reardon Riley shared a project briefing that declares “MassDOT is coordinating with DCR to provide a seamless transition from the proposed extension of the Cape Cod Rail Trail currently under design by DCR. There is currently no accommodation for pedestrians or bicycles on Route 6 beyond shoulders.”

Donovan is dismissive of the state’s proposals to include bike facilities on Route 6. “There’s going to be less room for cars,” he says. “The backup from the Main Street light on Route 6 is enormous.”

Other signatories of Donovan’s petition support efforts to make the state highway safer, but still agree that Route 6 is a bad place to bring the new trail.

“We’ve asked them to lower the speed limit at least through the section near the Main Street light. That may be some help,” says Rebecca Noble, a member of Wellfleet’s Bike and Walkways Committee and another supporter of Donovan’s petition.

Even then, she says “it would not be a smart move to put recreational cyclists in that corridor… We feel motivated and optimistic that we could do something better.”

Noble, whose husband owns the Idle Times Bike Shop on Route 6, is also advocating for the Old King’s Highway trailhead with an interest in where the trail might go next, on its way to Provincetown.

While most of the Cape Cod Rail Trail follows an abandoned railroad corridor, the right-of-way for that railroad has mostly been lost to private ownership north of Wellfleet’s village center.

That leaves only a few options for extending the trail north into the adjacent town of Truro and on to Provincetown – and Route 6 is currently the leading candidate. A 2017 master plan adopted by the Cape Cod Commission, a regional planning agency, called for “a separated multi-use path within the Route 6 right-of-way” from Wellfleet Center to Provincetown.

Noble and others in Wellfleet would like the DCR to consider instead building the trail along a nearby power line corridor (the blue dashed line in the map above) that runs parallel to Route 6 to the Truro town line.

The 2017 master plan considered and dismissed the power line corridor as a possible route because it runs through the Cape Cod National Seashore. But the plan admitted that, with additional analysis, “it may be desirable to reconsider the Wellfleet utility ROW segment” in order to complete the route to Truro.

New leadership at the National Seashore may be granting that reconsideration.

In the town’s August 27 select board meeting, board chair Janet Reinhart announced that she had met with the National Seashore’s new park superintendent, Brian Carlstrom, and announced that “he is open to discussing a Seashore-town power lines cooperation… they’re open to it, and he seems to like the idea of a bike trail, not a bike lane.” 

Learn more:

Wellfleet trail extension project: DCR project information


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